University needs participation, not spectacle

Following the controversy surrounding Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi's visit to the University, a group of students have undertaken a project to bring Bruce Springsteen to campus. The leader of this effort gave his reasoning in Thursday's brief in The Daily Targum titled "Facebook group hopes to draw Springsteen to campus": "[Our] image is tarnished, and bringing someone like Bruce here will help people refresh their thoughts about Rutgers." While I am a longtime fan of Springsteen's music, this effort is completely misplaced. Replacing one N.J. celebrity with another misses the point entirely. The University should not judge the strength of its reputation on the names of the celebrities it can bring to campus. The effort to improve the school by bringing Springsteen trivializes the lessons we can learn from the controversy about Snooki into a shallow argument about which celebrities are "better" for the school.

Students have begun to ask questions about what Rutgers University Programming Association's (RUPA) role is and what its relationship to the student body should be. I agree with the sentiment expressed in Thursday's letter in The Daily Targum titled "Students must control events": Having a student-run programming association can be a powerful catalyst for building a vibrant student culture. I also wholeheartedly agree with the author's calls for further transparency within the organization. But I think the divisiveness of the Snooki controversy points to a larger issue, one that calls into question the structure of RUPA. Many students expressed the idea that they had little say in this decision about how their campus fees were spent. According to Monday's brief in The Daily Targum titled "RUPA says 2,000 students asked for Snooki appearance": "Before selecting a performer, RUPA members brainstorm ideas, analyze trends in campus programming and gauge student input while maintaining an annual programming budget." This resembles the work of a marketing department, not an organization that should be accountable to the students who pay its fees. Such an arrangement reduces most students to the role of consumers of pre-selected events. It's unsurprising, then, that many students feel the work of RUPA does not reflect their interests, even if events like Snooki's appearance are very well attended. RUPA is playing for popularity, not participation.

If we want the University to have an interesting culture, then we should strive to build arrangements that foster student participation beyond surveys and websites. Rather than trying to see which media figures do best in polls of student preferences, we should work toward a culture in which students work democratically to create art and events that genuinely reflect student life at the University. There are plenty of organizations that do this on campus, but they are not the focus of RUPA's support. Students will feel more engaged if they and their peers can be direct participants in the cultural life of the University, not merely passive spectators of pre-arranged spectacles. The University touts itself as a culturally and intellectually attractive place to be, but a truly interesting university culture emerges from a focus on students and ideas. The more the University tries to simply bring in popular culture from outside, the more it loses its own distinctive identity as a school. While exposure to outside ideas is undoubtedly very important, the University must do more to promote student-generated arts and culture.

It's easy to lay blame solely at the feet of RUPA for these shortcomings, but I think that oversimplifies the issue. If students feel alienated from the cultural events that happen at the University, then they should take a more active role in shaping those events. While I do believe that a democratic, student-generated culture at the University will ultimately be more interesting and rewarding for students, it will also require more work. I think the conversation sparked by Snooki's visit can help us figure out a better way to organize the cultural life of the University. We ought to re-examine the relationship between RUPA and independent student events, and figure out how to best support a culture in which all students have an opportunity to meaningfully participate. This will help revitalize students' perception of the University far more than any single celebrity visit. When that happens, the University will have a reputation it can take pride in.

Andrew Foltz-Morrison is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in philosophy and geography.


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